Mental Floss

6 Famous Eunuchs

Martha Brozyna
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Eunuchs, or castrated men, have played an important part in many cultures throughout the world since ancient times. They were usually castrated while still young boys in order to smooth their paths into secure government and/or religious positions in places like Egypt, China, India, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire. Others were castrated as adults as punishment for crimes committed that were sexual in nature. Still others castrated themselves as a result of zealous religious beliefs or fear of sexual temptation. Here are six noteworthy eunuchs from history.

1. Sporus (First century CE)

Castration was a big no-no under Roman law; even slaves were protected against the act. However, eunuchs could still be purchased from outside the Roman Empire. Not surprisingly, the notoriously bizarre emperor Nero saw himself above the law and castrated Sporus before he married him. Little is known about Sporus' background except that he was a young man to whom Nero took a liking. Nero considered Sporus to be his wife, and their marriage ceremony included Sporus wearing a bridal veil, Nero providing Sporus with a dowry, and afterwards, a wonderful honeymoon in Greece. (Nero also married two other men, although they were not castrated because in those marriages, Nero was the wife).

It's possible that Nero used his marriage to Sporus to assuage the feelings of guilt he felt for kicking his pregnant wife, Sabina, to death in 65 AD. Sporus bore an uncanny resemblance to Sabina, and Nero even called him by his dead wife's name. The affair was short-lived, however, because Nero killed himself in 68 AD.

Sporus was not widowed for long. He soon married Nymphidius Sabinus, who made an unsuccessful bid for emperor that ended with his death at the hands of his opponent's followers. Sporus again became involved with another powerful man, Emperor Otho, who was also killed by his enemies. Sporus then became linked to greedy, gluttonous, and debauched Emperor Vitellius, who later had a villainous idea for a halftime show during one of the gladiatorial combats: he planned for Sporus to dress as a young woman and be raped for the viewing enjoyment of the crowds. Sporus committed suicide to avoid the humiliation.

2. Origen (185-254)

In the early days of Christianity, there was much consternation among believers about the issue of sex. Many early Christians wanted to renounce all things "worldly" such as physical pleasure, material goods, and family ties in order to imitate the life of Jesus Christ. The Gospels, particularly Matthew 19:12, advised, "For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it."

Most theologians understood this passage to mean that a true Christian should become celibate in the hopes of gaining favor in heaven. The Greek theologian Origen, however, took this passage to heart and castrated himself. It is not at all clear why Origen did this since he seemed to be living the life of an unattached and celibate scholar. One fourth century church historian claimed that he did this so he could teach female students without the fear of temptation. In any case, it seems the Origen was not alone in his zealous behavior because during a church council that met in 325 in Nicaea, the practice of castrating oneself became prohibited.

3. Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

Abelard
Abelard /

The two became intimate, and Heloise was soon pregnant. They married secretly, as scholars in the Middle Ages like Abelard were supposed to behave like clerics. In a series of misunderstandings, the churchman thought that Abelard had abandoned Heloise and he became so furious that he hired some men to castrate him, ending the love affair. Abelard joined a monastery, wrote about his ordeals in a work called History of My Misfortunes, and later resumed teaching and engaging in intellectual debate. Heloise joined a convent but continued to pine for Abelard in her letters to him. Their child was raised by family. Despite their separation, the two lovers are now buried together in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

4. Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627)

Eunuchs were common in imperial China for thousands of years, right up until the end of the Ching dynasty in 1911. They often came from very poor families and were castrated as children so they could work in the Emperor's palace. Imperial eunuchs often wielded tremendous power because they ran the government bureaucracy and were the only males allowed within the walls of the imperial palace.

Wei Zongxian's family did not intend for him to be a eunuch. He was born poor, grew up in circumstances normal for children in his village, married, and fathered a daughter. Unfortunately, Wei was also a gambler who quickly found himself in debt and was constantly threatened by those to whom he owed money. Wei decided to have himself castrated at 21 so he could enter the service of the emperor.

For thirty years, Wei was clever enough to stroke the right egos and make excellent connections within the palace. Probably the best career move he made was to befriend the future emperor Tianqi's wet-nurse, Mistress Ke. When the young Tianqi came to the throne at fifteen, Wei set about distracting the boy with all kinds of fun activities while he consolidated his power base and became the de facto ruler. Wei was also the director of the secret police so anyone who opposed him was purged, and shrines dedicated to Wei were erected all over China. Wei's situation changed very quickly when the emperor died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-three. Wei committed suicide and his body was dismembered and the remains displayed in his village as a warning to others.

5. Thomas "Boston" Corbett (1832-1894)

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It is perhaps not surprising that Corbett was later locked up at a Topeka mental institution. He had threatened members of the Kansas House of Representatives with a gun claiming that some of them had been disrespectful during opening prayers.

6. Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922)

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Moreschi_giovane /

The eighteenth-century castrato Farinelli was the most famous of all castrati with rock star-like popularity. He sang for royalty, popes, and adoring fans all over Europe, Still Moreschi will probably be better remembered as his singing can still be heard today.

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